The memories and journey he took from being the Kansas City Chiefs' first-round pick (No. 13 overall) in the 1997 NFL Draft-all the way to earning the distinction of being the greatest tight end in NFL history-all rushed back to him as his plane descended towards Kansas City Saturday afternoon prior to the 101 Awards in Kansas City.
It was at this awards show-the 48th edition and nation's longest-running Salute to Professional Football-that former Chiefs' great Tony Gonzalez was honored as the 48th player to be inducted into the team's Ring of Honor.
While the official celebration won't take place until this fall on Alumni weekend, the memories of how he got to his current status all came flooding back to him as his plane neared the ground.
"To be able to come in and play with guys like Derrick Thomas, Marcus Allen, Andre Rison and Elvis Grbac-my first quarterback, and others, there are just so many memories just flowing through my mind," Gonzalez explained. "It was just an unbelievable ride for me over those 12 years (in Kansas City)-so many different players and relationships, and that's what it's all about."
After spending the first 12 years of what ultimately became a 17-year NFL career in Kansas City, Gonzalez racked up a list of records and accolades that will be hard for anyone to match.
Not only does he hold all of the Chiefs' key receiving records-things like receptions (916), receiving yards (10,940), and 100-yard games (26), but Gonzalez is also tops in NFL history in those categories when his five years with the Atlanta Falcons are added to those totals.
"Few players in the history of this franchise, and for that matter, the NFL, have had a bigger impact on his position, than Tony Gonzalez did as a tight end," Chiefs' Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt explained in the press conference before introducing Gonzalez.
Over the course of his career, Gonzalez became the first tight end in NFL history to have 16-straight seasons of at least 50 receptions, and his 1,325 career receptions rank second in NFL history only behind Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice (1,549).
Look back at some of the best shots of TE Tony Gonzalez throughout his years with the Chiefs.
But as Gonzalez explained, it wasn't always easy and didn't begin with much fanfare.
"I dropped 17 footballs (my rookie year)," he explained. "I led the NFL in dropped passes and I was getting ripped up in the papers and by fans."
Gonzalez specifically cited a piece written by former Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock, who had given Gonzalez and the Chiefs a grade of D- after the first-round picks' rookie year-even quickly adding the bust label on a player who will be preparing for another bust soon as a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer.
"Looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to me," Gonzalez explained. "You talk about growth-the hard times. That's when you find out what you're made of. I remember I made a decision that I'd never hear that again, that I'd never be outworked."
And he wasn't.
"I got to learn from being able to watch guys like Will Shields and Tony Richardson," Gonzalez added. "Seeing a guy like Marcus Allen, who reached out to me my rookie year, and working with a guy like Warren Moon-Hall of Famers-guys who have been there and done that, and who can leave that mark on me.
"It changed everything for me. I became a man here in Kansas City. I will always be thankful for my time-those 12 years were fun. We might not have won that many games or any playoff games, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. Honestly. It made the person who I am now and what I'm doing with my life with my wife and kids. I owe it all to Kansas City."
And for as much as his play on the field defined who he was to many people, the man he was away from it-the guy getting heavily involved in a program like Shadow Buddies, which helps emotionally and medically-challenged children, and helping it grow from a regional thing to a national program-is part of the legacy Gonzalez still carries with him to this day.
And in addition to the countless "88" jerseys that are still donned every Sunday by those in Chiefs Kingdom recognizing the greatest to ever play the position, Gonzalez's legacy will have another permanent reminder at Arrowhead Stadium beginning in the fall when his name is added to the Ring of Honor.
"It's an unbelievable feeling, and I feel very blessed to be a part of this Kansas City organization. Now, to be able to go up in that Ring of Honor and be listed with all of those guys, it's amazing. You couldn't ask for anything more."